I attended my first Premiere Nights as a high school student back in 2006. I remember the film festival had not yet gained the popularity it enjoys today and the long lines that had come to be expected at the box offices of the Danaos and Attikon cinemas just a few years later were still a rare phenomenon – in fact, you could catch a screening on a whim, without having to plan ahead, though there was something almost eerie about the half-empty theaters.
I also remember how impressed I was by German drama “The Lives of Others,” which Athenian film buffs first saw at the event. Now in its 23rd edition, the empty theaters at the Premiere Nights Athens International Film Festival (AIFF) are a thing of the past.
Running through October 1, it is, along with the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, considered one of the country’s biggest film events, thanks to a program comprising some of the greatest releases of the year, exclusive premieres, interesting tributes and special guests.
As in sports and politics, it’s the big names that serve as crowd-pullers in the arts, and there’s no shortage of films by top-flight directors this year. First is the latest outing by Michael Haneke – possibly one of the greatest filmmakers in Europe right now – “Happy End.”
It is another one of the German director’s grim family dramas, this time set against the backdrop of the refugee crisis and starring Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Tritignant. Another European great, Aki Kaurismaki has also been inspired by the refugee crisis, as it has been experienced in his native Finland, in “The Other Side of Hope.”
Lynne Ramsay (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”), another filmmaking VIP, will be in Athens for the event to present “You Were Never Really Here,” which shared this year’s Best Screenplay Award at Cannes with Greece’s Yorgos Lanthimos for “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” The Scottish director’s film also took the Best Actor Award for Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of a hired killer who saves a young girl from the clutches of a child porn gang. Moroccan-born French filmmaker and screenwriter Robin Campillo (“Entre les murs,” which won the Palme d’Or in 2008, “L’Emploi du temps”) will introduce his latest film, “120 battements par minute,” on the subject of the movement for HIV awareness in Paris in the 1990s.
Another important name is that of Italy’s Luca Guadagnino, whose “Call Me by Your Name,” written by James Ivory, is a coming-of-age drama about a young man who explores his sexuality in the company of an academic in early 1980s Italy. Supernatural horror “Thelma,” by Denmark’s Joachim Trier, about a student who develops strange powers when she falls in love with another woman, has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Last but not least, there’s “Foxtrot” by Israeli filmmaker Samuel Maoz (“Lebanon”), a surrealism-infused drama about a family in Tel Aviv who learn that their son, a soldier, died in the line of duty, which took the Silver Lion in Venice.
Like every self-respecting festival, Premiere Nights has also organized a series of special tributes. The first is to celebrated French filmmaker Claire Denis. Named “The Geography of Desire,” this section includes the premiere of her latest, “Let the Sunshine In,” starring Juliette Binoche, as well as all of her older feature films. The festival then takes us back with a tribute to the great cinematic world of two-time Oscar winner John Huston, including screenings of “Prizzi’s Honor,” “The Misfits,” “The African Queen” and “The Maltese Falcon,” among other favorites.
The last tribute is titled “Nothing About Us, Without Us” and is dedicated to films on the subject of or directed by people with disabilities. The screenings for this section will take place at the wheelchair-friendly Onassis Cultural Center.
The festival’s documentary section is also interesting this year. Among the selections are “City of Ghosts,” a hard-hitting look by Matthew Heineman at the atrocities committed by ISIS and a favorite for the Oscar in its category; “Sea Sorrow,” directed by Vanessa Redgrave as part of her ongoing campaign to raise international awareness about the refugee crisis; and “Chasing Trane,” by John Scheinfeld on the impact John Coltrane had on the world music industry.
For the full program, visit www.aiff.gr.